Way Back Then is a new weekly column that aims to go back and highlight influential albums on their twentieth anniversaries. Whether it was their debut release, a record that saw a musician fall into a sophomore slump or a swan-song of a final release, Way Back Then tries to showcase how their 1996 releases shaped the band and left a mark on the music world as a whole.
by Spencer vH
Emerging from the fertile grounds of San Diego, CA’s early 1990’s rock ‘n roll explosion, No Knife still stand out in a large group of their remarkable peers. Dubbed by many as “The Next Seattle”, the southern California port served as home base for bands like Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Pinback, Pitchfork and even more during the early parts of the decade. Debuting with the eleven-track record ‘Drunk On The Moon’ in early 1996, the band gave the world it’s first taste of their loud and technical yet seamlessly melodic indie rock which would continue over the course of a nearly twenty year career.
Recorded in late 1995 for release on professional skateboarder Tod Swank’s Goldenrod Records (who in the same year released records for local heavyweights Three Mile Pilot), No Knife’s debut opened many doors for the young band while they still clung tightly to their DIY (or in their words ‘guerilla’) roots. Guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter Mitch Wilson began his musical career with no formal training. Thrown into punk bands as a teenager with members of Rocket from the Crypt, he was sometimes just given a sheet of lyrics and told to do his best. While one of his bands, Violent Boyscouts, did go as far as to play with hardcore-punk heavyweights Agnostic Front and local Santa Barbara legends R.K.L, it wasn’t until No Knife signed to Timebomb Records that Wilson and the rest of the band’s careers truly took off. Formed by then-manager of Social Distortion and Rancid, Timebomb left creative control of the band completely up to themselves and set them on up with the first real big tour of their careers with emo pioneers The Get-Up Kids. Their close relationship with The Get-Up Kids as well as their friendships with other pioneers of the genre Sunny Day Real Estate and At The Drive-In led to countless opportunities to tour the country.
One fan specifically would end up opening some of the biggest doors for the group. The same way that San Diego platinum pop-punk Blink-182 had done for his group years before, Jim Adkins of Mesa, Arizona band Jimmy Eat World decided that more of the world should know about No Knife. Giving high praise of the band to news outlets like MTV, bringing them on many tours over many years and even contributing backing vocals to the band’s most recognizable release, 1999’s “Fire In The City of the Automatons”, the band’s relationship with Adkins would persist until their career was over. Or so they thought. By 2001, the band had slowly descended into quasi-retirement, but a persistent record producer named Greg Wales thought the band had more life left in them. After working with the band on “Fire In The City of the Automatons”, he managed to gather the members in the studio in 2002 to casually record some songs. Those sessions turned into the band’s fourth and final record “Riot For Romance”, a record that was more successful than all of their previous efforts combined. Although their past releases were distributed through music giant BME, ‘Riot For Romance’ was released by a small label based in Los Angeles, CA called Better Looking Records. This made it a huge surprise when the record received steady college radio airplay and for the first time in the band’s career, commercial radio airplay as well.
The band successfully toured after the record with some of the most highly-regarded indie bands of the era including Omaha, Nebraska’s Cursive and Lawrence, Kansas’ The Appleseed Cast. With the band in unfamiliar territory in terms of their success and outside expectations, inner turmoil slowly destroyed the band who simply said that they slowly grew apart. They played their final shows in 2008 as west coast support for Jimmy Eat World, with their final show taking place in their hometown of San Diego. Their final song? “Mission Control”, a David Bowie homage from their third album.
Never being pigeon-holed into the genre themselves, they skated the outside of the emo explosion around the turn of the new millennium while staying wholly original to themselves – and through that their legacy and influence lives on. The vocal melodies of indie rock, angular guitars of post-punk and heavy, intricate drumming that is borderline metal influenced, No Knife inspired many bands to not be constrained to labels or genres and instilled a strong DIY ethic despite their level of success. Hometown San Diego label 31G Records roster is full of bands like The Locust and Some Girls who rose to prominence in the 2000s exhibiting many of the genre-bending musicalities that they could have seen No Knife performing locally in their youth. Millennial breakout rockstars Thrice have also cited No Knife as a band that helped they push their limits and contribute dark yet more melodic elements into their later works. Drummer Chris Prescott may have the most profound influence of all, as his work in seminal indie rock band Pinback provided a generation of drummers with the confidence to play complex and intricate rhythms even in a contemporary radio-friendly indie rock setting. Local musician Tim Eymann of long-running Goleta, CA duo Easter Teeth is as big a fan of the members of the band as the group itself. “I probably saw No Knife live more times than any other band, except maybe Cursive, including two or three times at our own beloved Hard to Find Showspace in Goleta and their “final” show at The Belly Up. They were the perfect blend of intricate, poppy, and edgy, with such a signature style of dueling guitar riffs. Beyond the songwriting, their energy live and their desire to connect with their fans (on and off stage) set them apart even more. That has been as big an influence on me as their music. I genuinely strive to do it the way Mitch, Ryan, Brian, and Chris did it.”
While No Knife may not ever be the first band mentioned in a conversation about their peers like Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt, they’ve left a lasting mark on rock music. Twenty years later, their debut record still shines as one of the jewels of their discography.